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Colborn’s corner: Keeping fit

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Quentin ColbornWhilst employers clearly have to abide by the law, how far should they go in protecting the wellbeing of their employees? Quentin asks whether it’s really the company’s responsibility.


Leaving aside what needs to be done for the sake of legislation, how much should employers care for the health of their employees? One view is not too much – but how does one get to that position?

We live in a world that is ever more politically correct. Even at the minute there are debates about Christmas and whether referring to Christmas offends minority groups. While I have severe concerns about the over-protection of people and their feelings, one real concern I have is the increasing tendency to take away from individuals a personal sense of responsibility. This applies as much to health as anything else.

So leaving aside legislation, why should an employer take an interest in which members of their workforce smoke? I appreciate that smoking may well lead to a higher than average rate of sickness absence, but surely that is something to be managed through the absence management procedure – if there is one. Clearly the employer will suffer if the employee is absent, but why should the employer take remedial action, rather than leaving the complete initiative to the employee?

If an employee is unfit, leaving aside medical conditions, how much should an employer make allowances for that, let alone put in place remedial action? Should there be an expectation that employees keep themselves reasonably fit? Some employees, typically entertainers within sport or the theatre, do have to keep themselves fit and if they fail to do so they are effectively out of a job. How many employees are ever tackled simply because they are not fit enough?

How far should employers go in providing health advice and support? Are courses designed to help staff quit smoking during work time appropriate? Why should smokers get time off to quit smoking when, in the perception of many, they have had a working life of smoking breaks that their non-smoking colleagues are denied?

Taking this a step further, it is worth considering the amount of sick pay given by employers. In my work with a variety of smaller employers I see a huge variation in the amount of sick pay provided. A significant number of employers pay nothing apart from SSP, while some others will provide company sick pay for up to six months. Leaving aside the very important question of affordability, what practice should employers look to adopt? Why should employees be paid for not working – what difference would it make to sickness levels if employers only provided SSP? The alternative, and very valid viewpoint, is that paying sick pay builds the sense of mutuality in the employment relationship and employees benefit from the employer acting as a form of employer who is able to spread the risk of sickness absence.

It might also be worth considering the role of the employer in encouraging people to involve themselves in sporting activities. It all sounds fine, but what happens when the employee breaks a leg playing football? How many employers would withdraw sick pay in such a situation?

I’ve deliberately been provocative this week in my thoughts about employee welfare, but too often I think we simply accept the status quo and don’t consider if circumstances have changed from when terms and benefits were originally put in place.

Let’s have your views on the relationship between employers and employees’ health. Who has the balance right?


Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected],

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Useful links:

  • Does sick pay encourage sickies? By Sarah Fletcher
  • What’s the answer? Sickness absence
  • What happened next? Sickness and disciplinary. By Sarah Fletcher
  • 2 Responses

    1. Healthy Workforce
      In these day when many organisations have a flexible compensation package maybe some of the things on offer could be “heathy living” options – gym membership, advice on healthy lifestyles, and a health insurance scheme e.g. Healthshield or BUPA. After that it is up to the employee what they opt for and how much use they make of the benefit.

    2. Employers Benefit from Employee Wellbeing
      Hi Quentin,

      I agree to some extent with the points you are making, but would also add this.

      If you have a fit and well workforce, they are more likely to be working at their optimum and therefore will contribute more to your business.

      In these days of many employers having their focus constantly on the bottom line, many forget that one of the key areas of their business for development is their staff. And their staff are human beings not machinery. Like a car, they need to be maintained and serviced in order to perform at their best.

      A lot of the responsibility for this, as you quite rightly say, is down to the individual, but support in terms of training, mentoring and coaching can be a very wise investment.

      A lot of people would like to be fit, but simply don’t have the knowledge or encouragement. If an employer can give their workforce access to helpful programmes and to subsidise or pay for some of these, it can pay huge dividends.

      Best wishes

      Annie Lawler
      Breathing Space for Business

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